I think it's prudent, even wise, to take in any new television comedy – even a highly touted one with a dynamite lead actor – with a degree of skepticism. It's just that we've been burned so many times in the past: the putrid concepts, the yawn-inducing set-ups, the forced anxious trials of attempted hilarity. It's almost enough to make one shudder, especially when we're talking about the broadcast networks.
Earlier this year, NBC did me and the rest of the comedy-loving world a solid, however, by successfully translating the virtuosic genius of the BBC's The Office into American digs. It worked due to sharp writing, dynamic pseudo-documentary camera work, and a bang up and spot on cast fronted by Steve Carell.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the peacock network has pulled off another great feat by banging out a honky-tonk comedic gem in My Name Is Earl. It premieres tonight, Tuesday, September 20, at 9:00 (8:00 Central) on NBC.
What makes a great comedy? Lots of charts and graphs and explanations all really boil down to the old axiom of: when it works, it works, bubba!
And Earl works, beginning first and foremost with Earl himself, played by the great Jason Lee. On the DVD audio commentary track of the vastly underrated Vanilla Sky, director Cameron Crowe complimented Lee by saying that his comedic roles hold a strong underbelly of drama, and likewise his dramatic roles play off his comedic talents. And that's why we buy into Earl's story; we believe in Earl straight away. We want to see him succeed (even in often ridiculous circumstances), and we're therefore emotionally invested in the big time laughs that come along the way.
Earl is a self-professed small time criminal and big time loser. To not give away too much from the pilot episode, Earl quickly achieves what some might call a moment of clarity: he's going to change his life and his luck by making restitutions on all the transgressions of his life, no matter how large or small (here's the list). Therefore, much of the debut episode has to do with Earl making nice to a guy whom he once, in childhood days, took pleasure in beating on.
This is a good hook for a pilot — crossing off one's sins one-by-one — but I hope that the show evolves beyond a Check the List / Solve Problem / Cross Item Off List mentality. I think that there's a very good chance that it will as the foundations of many othercharacters and situations are demonstratively in place.
A good case in point is Earl's brother Randy, played by Ethan Suplee. In lesser hands, Randy would be a cardboard, drooling, hick of a stock character. However, Suplee plays up Randy's low grade IQ and lazy inclinations with a goofy charm that is nearly sublime. There's a great joke that revolves around the term "B7." As soon as B7 (which stands for a letter/number combination on an old-time jukebox) is invoked, Randy's eyes light up as though a child receiving a Red Rider BB gun come Christmas morning. "No you didn't," he exhales in near ecstasy as Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two" powers up the about to be rocked raw crab shack, 80s style.
It's moments like these that make My Name is Earl a joy to watch. Lee's down-home, down-on-his-luck charm invokes a strong Raising Arizona-era Coen brothers sensibility. In fact, the entire pilot episode plays like an expertly put together first third of a great comedic film. Several tunes by Beck carry through the show, which also really helps to fill out the program thematically.
There are plenty of other reasons to want to come back for Episode Two and beyond. Earl's voiceovers carry the show along wonderfully and owe much to Ron Howard's work on Arrested Development. Joy herself, Earl's cheerfully evil ex-wife, played by Jaime Pressly, and the marvelously carefree Darnell (Eddie Steeples) will undoubtedly find plenty of ways to disrupt Earl's dedication to self-rehabilitation.
"Karma is a funny thing," we're told. My Name Is Earl is not your typical comedy, and far from your typical sitcom. And that's great news and funny news both.
Well pleased to meet you.